The American Forest Products Industry Keeps Eliminating Jobs

Some Blame Asian Nations Including China. Others Attribute the Growing Problem to email and to Online Technology in General


When someone sends me an email with the tag line: “Don’t print this — Save A Tree” I shake my head.

I’d really like to alter those lines to read: “Print this message and save American jobs.” But its possible some people just wouldn’t get it. They are totally unaware of what is happening to the nation’s paper industry.

The “save a tree” line makes about as much sense as writing “Don’t eat bread, birds need the wheat.” Or a vegetarian might write: “Don’t let farmers fatten up hogs with corn. They’ll just turn them into pork chops and bacon.”

Wheat grows in sprawling fields year after year. A sow often has 10 to 12 piglets at a time. That makes that female hog a truly renewable resource if you don’t grimace at the thought of butchering animals. And if you do find killing pigs troubling, plant a garden. I’ve never heard of a tomato plant squealing when one pulls a ripe red tomato off a vine.

Close a paper mill and people lose their jobs. That means more than being out of work. Other things happen.

Unemployed people still must eat. But you, if you are a taxpayer, pay for their food stamps. (Today the federal government calls it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has been shortened to the initials SNAP).

SNAP costs us all money. But a man who has worked hard in the woods for all his life supplying paper mills with wood that turns into what is called “pulp” doesn’t want welfare. He wants a job.

“Forest growth nationally has exceeded harvest since the 1940s,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “By 1997, forest growth exceeded harvest by 42 percent and the volume of forest growth was 380 percent greater than it had been in 1920.”

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International Paper Company, the largest pulp and paper producer in the world, closed its Courtland, Alabama plant in 2014. A total of 1.100 people lost their jobs. Their wages reportedly averaged between $20 an $32 an hour. Closing the plant in Courtland cuts IP’s paper making capacity by a third, or 950 tons a year. It had specialized in the kind of paper you use in your copy machine as well as the glossy paper used by magazines and those advertising fliers sent to your home once a week through the mail.

Did the company take a beating? Apparently not. Before the closing it was announced that IP had increased its dividend by 17 percent and then added it intended to buy back $1.5 billion of its own stock. Not exactly a company on the ropes.

In New England. where I’ve lived for more that 40 years, the paper industry is disappearing. Paper Mills in both New Hampshire and Maine are quite old and therefore inefficient. In Berlin, where the mill opened in 1866, it has been bulldozed to the ground. Through effective political persuasion a new 750-bed Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility was built-in 1999. Some 200 people were hired.

Then in 2012 the Federal Bureau of Prisons opened a 1,200 bed medium security facility, putting another 350 people to work. Again, the taxpayers are involved. The families of prisoners from the state’s southern regions have a long drive to visit those who are incarcerated there. Berlin is just 60 miles south of the Quebec, Canada border.

Next door in Maine it was recently announced Bucksport’s Verso Mill will close at the end of 2015. There 570 people will lose their jobs. Not to mention the pulp cutters. Old Town’s mill closed in late summer in 2014. Earlier the East Millinocket paper mill, which opened in 1907, filed for bankruptcy and was closed in February of 2014. The Great Northern Paper company in Millinocket shut its plant down in 2008. Brewer’s Eastern Fine Paper, which dated back to 1895, closed in 2004.

Why? High energy costs are part of the story. But so is the internet, email, and other 20th and 21st century technology which functions without the use of paper. Also blame fast-growing trees in Brazil and other South American countries. And China and other overseas companies.

In Joliet, Illinois the 97-year-old Ivex Packaging Paper Plant closed in 2011.

“This segment of the paper manufacturing industry has seen declines in the last several years,
explained Jon Pierce, president of Ivex Paper Packaging. “We’ve looked at a number of scenarios to improve efficiency at the plant, but, given the facility’s age, scale and inefficiencies, combined with declines in demand due to current economic conditions, it is not economically feasible to continue the plant’s operation.”

In that same year the Blue Heron Paper Company in Oregon City, Oregon also was shuttered. Blue Heron Paper Company president Mike Siebers largely blames China.

“Mills like Blue Heron are where the actual recycling of the collected wastepaper you set out at the curb takes place. But China and other Far East countries have developed an insatiable appetite for recycled fiber to support their own paper plants, which are then subsidized by their parent countries in other ways to maintain jobs,” Siebers explained.

Despite its lack of a competitive advantage, China is said to have now surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s leader in that segment in just a decade.

Save a tree but lose jobs is more accurate, if you follow the “don’t print this” plea or command from the uninformed.

Howard James

Next: Furniture sold by high-profile North Carolina companies are being made elsewhere, including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico.

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